UW PhD candidate wins 3-minute-thesis competition

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Gah-Jone Won, a PhD candidate in vision science and biology and researcher in Dr. Vivian Choh&rsquo;s lab at the University of Waterloo, won the Ontario Three-Minute-Thesis (3MT) competition with a presentation on his research regarding a promising new treatment for presbyopia.</p>

The Ontario 3MT competition was held at Wilfrid Laurier University April 14 and challenged graduate students to present their research and its wider impact to a panel of non-specialist judges and audience in three minutes using only one static slide.

Won’s presentation, entitled “The Development of an Antibody-Drug Conjugate to Specifically Target and Soften the Crystalline Lens in vivo,” explained his research on the development of a pharmaceutical treatment for presbyopia, which acts by specifically targeting and softening the crystalline lens. These lenses are a structure within the eye that changes shape in order to allow our eyes to focus on nearby objects. 

Presbyopia is a common vision disorder which results in the inability to focus up close.  Won described presbyopia as “the age-related loss of nearby vision.” He explained that presbyopia, which eventually affects everyone, is the result of the lens becoming stiffer and the surrounding muscle becoming weaker resulting in the eventual loss of nearby vision. The disorder may develop in some as early as age 40. 

According to Won, when light enters the eye, it must pass through two important structures —  the cornea and the lens — before it can become focused onto the retina.  Won explained that the lens is “an oval structure that is encircled by an annular muscle, whose contraction causes the lens to become more round, thus increasing the power of our eyes.”

According to Won, there are currently only two treatment options for presbyopia — the bifocal spectacle (otherwise known as reading glasses) and surgical treatment in which the crystalline lens is replaced with a synthetic intraocular lens.  Won said that the surgery is invasive and carries certain risks. He said that “reading glasses … may be a burden to some individuals who dislike constantly having to carry them around and putting them on only for near reading purposes.”

Won described his new treatment option for presbyopia as “a pharmaceutical eye drop” which would be “less bothersome than constantly having to put reading glasses on, and not at all invasive like surgery.” Having found a molecule that targeted and softened the crystalline lens quite effectively, Won and his fellow researchers proceeded to test it on animal models and eventually hope to find a way to treat presbyopia in humans.

Won explained that the active ingredient in his pharmaceutical treatment is a molecule known as blebbistatin which “acts by breaking down the interaction of [actin and myosin] in the lens … [by binding] to myosin and [causing] structural changes such that it can no longer connect with actin strands.” The process temporary change lasting one hour to 13 hours, depending on the concentration of the doses.

Won said that his pharmaceutical treatment for presbyopia will still take some time to develop before it will be commercially available. Since the molecule is much too large to penetrate the corneal barrier, further research is still needed in order to modify the treatment so that it can be administered as an eye drop instead of the current application of eye injections. 

Won will be one of eleven finalists who will now compete for the national 3MT prize on May 9.  The first place winner will receive $1,500 and an all-expenses paid trip to the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies annual conference, while the second place winner and people’s choice winner will receive $1,000 and $500 respectively.

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